Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Bowersock name not forgotten to this family

Brothers Stephen Hill, left, and Justin Hill are pictured Wednesday on Stephen’s property, which overlooks much of central and east Lawrence. Stephen Hill, who is owner of the Bowersock Mills and Power Co., and Justin, who is president of the Lawrence Paper Co., are the grandsons of J.D. Bowersock, top photo, an influential industrialist who helped to shape the landscape of Lawrence beginning in the late 1800s.

When you are compared to Moses in the newspaper article announcing your death, you know you’ve done something.

So it was for Justin DeWitt Bowersock.

“He passed away like Moses, with his eyes undimmed and his mental force unabated,” the unnamed author wrote in the Oct. 28, 1922, edition of the Journal-World.

Of course, everybody in Lawrence — really, throughout much of the state — in 1922 already knew J.D. Bowersock had done something.

It would have been hard to find anyone in Lawrence at the time who didn’t know Bowersock lived the final years of his life in a grand home atop the hill just west of Eighth and Michigan streets.

Today, an unassuming paved driveway winds down the hill. It meets up with a city roundabout at Eighth and Michigan, which I guess is supposed to be a symbol of progress in this new century. No way to know whether Bowersock would have thought so.

He would have been a good one to ask, though. The man understood progress. It started with the dam on the Kansas River near downtown. It already was built by the time Bowersock arrived in Lawrence from Iowa City in 1877. The problem is, it never stayed built for very long. High water frequently would wash it away.

By 1886, Bowersock controlled the dam and rebuilt it so that it has never washed away since. The feat gained him the title “Master of the Kaw,” but more importantly provided him with a cheap supply of electricity to build an industrial empire along the Kansas River.

Connected to his dam and power house were a host of companies, some of which ended up changing the look of business forever. Bowersock’s Lawrence Paper Co. became a pioneer of the cardboard shipping box, convincing the influential Ball Brothers — makers of the Mason jars — to use cardboard boxes instead of wooden crates to ship their fragile wares. If cardboard boxes were good enough for glass jars, surely they were good enough for almost anything else.

Bowersock also was a director for the Consolidated Barbed Wire Factory. It was the largest private employer in the state of Kansas at the turn of the century, until a fellow by the name of J.P. Morgan told him that he would get no more steel unless the company was sold. In addition there was a chemical company, a foundry, various mills and even a tanning and shoe company that gave Lawrence a legitimate claim to the state’s industrial capital.

Forget all that, though. Here’s all you need to know about how powerful J.D. Bowersock was: A great believer in the temperance movement, he was elected mayor in 1881 and abolished all the saloons in the city. There’s not a man alive powerful enough to pull that off in Lawrence today.

But it happened, because once, you see, Lawrence wasn’t a university town as much as it was a J.D. Bowersock town.

Today, it would be tough to honestly say that Lawrence is a Stephen or Justin Hill town. Sure, longtime residents or close observers of Lawrence’s business scene certainly know of both men. But neither is a household name like Bowersock was.

What the brothers are, however, are the two great-grandsons of J.D. Bowersock who are still carrying on the man’s industrial tradition. Stephen, 75, is an owner of the Bowersock Mills and Power Co. Justin, 67, is the president of the Lawrence Paper Co., the cardboard box folks. Both companies were founded by Bowersock and are among the oldest continuously operating businesses in the city.

What it means to be a descendant of the city’s most powerful industrialist, however, is a bit cloudy these days. Both Stephen and Justin admit not even Bowersock’s name is known in many households today.

“You would have to pick up a history book to know about him, and not many people do that anymore,” Stephen said.

It is easy to see how the Bowersock name could get lost. The dam is named after Bowersock, but that seems to be because it has to be called something. There is no large plaque or grand proclamation that has been made about it. In fact, there is not one single public monument to Bowersock — not a Bowersock Boulevard, a Bowersock Park or a Bowersock Elementary.

“It hasn’t been our style to do that,” said Stephen, who, along with Justin, seems to have adopted the style of understated emotion that the history books used to describe Bowersock’s personality.

Maybe the family knew what it was doing. Stephen and Justin’s grandfather does have a street named after him in Lawrence: Irving Hill Drive. But go to our age’s great source of knowledge — Google, of course — and you can find a long list of buildings located along the street but nary a mention of who Irving Hill was. In case you’re wondering, he was Bowersock’s son-in-law, chief business manager, the city’s leading banker and the man who donated most of the land that is generally known as Kansas University’s West Campus.

In fact, the home atop the hill west of Eighth and Michigan, actually was Irving Hill’s home. Bowersock lived on the second floor after age forced him to move from his apartment in the Bowersock Opera House, a building we now call Liberty Hall.

Don’t look for that name to change anytime soon. While there is no movement afoot to name anything after Bowersock, his enterprises have gotten a boost lately.

The Bowersock Mills and Power Co. is completing a $25 million project to build a new power plant at the north end of Bowersock’s dam. And Justin said the Lawrence Paper Co. has gone back to the past in a way.

“It is a neat deal,” Justin said. “It has kind of gone full circle over 130 years. Many stockholders have been bought out, and it is basically back down to one family. And with all the money we’ve spent, it is one of the premier box factories in the world right now.”

Both Stephen and Justin are never very far from the memory of the man who laid the foundation for those businesses. Stephen lives in the Irving Hill home, and Justin lives just a few yards away in the property’s stone barn that has been renovated into a home.

Both Stephen and Justin said they grew up knowing who their great-grandfather was — “There was always some sort of milestone related to him that was coming along,” Stephen recalls — but Bowersock’s history never was a dominant presence growing up.

Now, I guess, the milestone is that it has been 90 years since one of Lawrence’s most powerful citizens died. There won’t be any grandiose language like there was in the days following his death. The Hill brothers are as efficient with words as their great-grandfather was in business matters.

“I think his history speaks to the genius of the private enterprise system,” Justin simply says. “Somebody with talents and who is bright can do a lot of things.”

Stephen is more the historian of the family, so he recalls a fact: In 1870, Lawrence had about 7,000 people. When Bowersock arrived near the end of the decade, it still had only 7,000 people.

“Lawrence went nowhere in the 1870s,” Stephen says. “It was a very, very hard time. When Bowersock came to town, he energized the community.”

If you don’t believe him, from Stephen Hill’s front porch you can look over downtown and the Kansas River valley and still see much of what was built during J.D. Bowersock’s tenure.

From that porch, you start to understand why there may not be a need to plaster Bowersock’s name all over this town.

After all, monuments are nice. Legacies are better.